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History of the site

The five historic buildings that comprise the Woolwich Creative District are on a site originally known as the Woolwich Warren and in the grounds of a big Tudor house. The Board of Ordnance purchased the site in 1671 to store materials because the Warren was near to the dockyards.


In the 1700s the area was known as the Royal Laboratories and housed an innovative firework factory, run by the Controller of Fireworks, which supplied fireworks for national occasions such as coronations, peace treaties and royal jubilees. In following years, Building 40, which housed a theatre, was erected, marking the beginning of an enduring relationship between artistry and the military in the area. The Royal Artillery Band, the oldest orchestra in the UK, established a base in Woolwich (1762-2014) and played in the first performance of Handel's Fireworks Music in Green Park (with thousands of fireworks from Woolwich).

Scholars and scientists

The Royal Military Academy opened with courses including etiquette, dancing and drawing. The Academy was home to distinguished scholars and scientists who amongst other things were famous for map making, water colour painting and discovering Strontium, diabetes, the density of the earth and Simpson's rule of mathematics.

George III first visited the Royal Academy arriving by barge in 1773 and he granted a new 'Bean Feast' holiday which was observed for 200 years. After another visit in 1805 the area was renamed Royal Arsenal. From 1806, following the departure of the Royal Military Academy the area became a fully self-contained factory complex during the Crimean War (1853-1856) which functioned, in parts, for over a century.

In 1886, factory workers formed Dial Square FC which would go on to relocate and become the team we know today as Arsenal.

The Secret City

Woolwich Arsenal is perhaps now most commonly remembered as the Secret City which, during WW1, employed an estimated 80,000 people at its height by the end of the war, around half of whom were women. Jobs there were dangerous and physically demanding, building the ammunitions required for warfare. Handling explosive chemicals stained the female munitions workers’ hair and skin yellow and earned them the nickname the Canary Girls. Into the Second World War, the Secret City retained its role in the production line until manufacturing ceased in 1967, and the Ministry of Defence departed in 1994.

Throughout its 300 year history in Woolwich, this site has been an important place of work and social progress and this tradition will now be carried forward by the soon to be renamed buildings.